When I record drum or percussion tracks for clients, 9 times out of 10 I’m sending the RAW wav files straight from Pro Tools. Of course, my goal is to always get the best sounds that I can possibly get in the studio and at the source. However, mixing and processing the drum kit is inevitable.
In general, mixing audio is a personal art form. Everything from the style of music to the instruments chosen will determine how the mixing session will go. Because the drums are typically recorded first, it makes sense to mix the drum tracks within the context of the remaining instruments later verses starting with a processed drum mix. Of course, there are no rules here. This is just what I have found to be the most effective way to work.
That being said, I get a lot of questions from clients asking for my advice on mixing the drum kit. My only goal when mixing drums is to attempt to highlight the sounds as I hear them in the studio. Meaning, my approach is simple:
Get rid of what’s not necessary and keep what is. I know, really deep stuff right?
Well, that’s a bit more complicated when collaborating online because no one else can hear what my drums are sounding like in the studio. Fair enough. So… I’ve compiled 10 simple steps that I take each and every time I mix drums, in order from top to bottom.
Again, there is no right or wrong. However, I hope that these steps will help clear up any confusion the next time you’re mixing those drums.
1. Create a Drums Sub Mix
Before you do anything else, create a sub mix and name it “Drums”. Then simply route each drum track to that bus. You can always add a nice analog plug-in or other processors to this mix later. Having a sub mix ready to go helps keep things clean and organized. You’ll want it at some point anyway so just as well create one right off the bat.
2. Adjust Levels
The important thing about mixing drums is to listen to the entire kit as you make decisions. A lot of huge mistakes can easily be made if the levels weren’t adjusted yet. What I like to do is start listening to the entire kit at zero db, then adjust from there. Your goal here is to create a nicely blended and natural sounding kit. Don’t start adding any plug-ins until you have a well balanced kit as this can lead to more issues later. And if you feel like you’re having trouble hearing the tracks, crank those monitors up!
After the levels are set, decide which panning perspective you want. I prefer panning from the the drummers perspective. (Hats on the left, Ride on the right). Panning will depend on what tracks you’re working with. However, a good rule of thumb is to keep the snare and kick in the middle. Everything else can be either be hard panned or to your taste. Panning creates instant depth and can be the missing link to an interesting drum mix.
When recording an acoustic drum kit, microphone bleed is going to happen. Don’t be afraid of bleed. That being said, the point of a great mix is to get rid of stuff that’s not necessary. That’s where a gate comes in. I always gate the toms first, then the kick and sometimes the snare. Pick a nice gate plug-in and loop a section where there’s a big tom fill. This will help you adjust the gate to your liking while you’re listening to those toms ring. What you’re wanting to achieve with a gate is a nice open tom sound with a natural sustain. Don’t shut it down too quickly or it’ll sound unnatural. Same goes for the kick and snare.
I like to route all of the drum tracks through a reverb bus. Like the gate, too much reverb on any track can sound just weird. If done right, however, reverb can add some really nice depth and fullness to a drum track. One tip to consider is to route all mono tracks (Snare, Kick, Toms) to a mono reverb and all stereo tracks (Overheads, Room Mics) to a stereo reverb. This way you can adjust the reverb settings accordingly. Again, experiment until it starts sounding unnatural then back it off.
Want more tips? The original post contains 5 additional steps. Visit the full post here.
About the Author: Travis Whitmore is a professional drummer that offers recording services out of his home studio as well as a blog for recording musicians. Visit www.silverlakestudio.com for more info and to get in touch with Travis.